(WOMENSENEWS)–She’d been down and up many times. From a childhood singing for pennies on a Chattanooga, Tenn., street corner to a reign as “Empress of the Blues” at Cafe Society; from drunken brawls to Columbia Records; from misery to glory and back again, Bessie Smith had quite a life.
She loved, turbulently, both women and men. She wrote great songs. She sang like nobody else. When the late 1920s popularity of the blues–and black culture–waned, giving way to swing music and Benny Goodman, she shifted her style a little. It was hard to tell whether she was on her way up or down that night in 1937 as she drove with her lover through Mississippi en route to a club date in Memphis.
The car rear-ended a truck, rolled over, crushing Bessie’s arm and ribs. The 6-foot tall, 200-pound, earthy, bawdy, tough 42-year-old Bessie Smith bled to death on the way to the hospital.
Rumors spread immediately that she might have survived if white hospitals had not refused to attend her. (Edward Albee later wrote a play to that effect.) But the truth seems to be that police and ambulance brought her straight to the black hospital in Clarksdale, Miss., although most people believe that the lackadaisical attitude surrounding an unknown black woman in a car crash in the Deep South helped assure her death.
Bessie Smith languished in her grave until Janis Joplin came along. Joplin, no goody two-shoes in life or onstage herself, considered herself the heiress to the hard-livin’ blues great’s legacy. “She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it,” Joplin said.
In 1970, Joplin paid to have a proper headstone placed on Smith’s grave. The inscription reads:
The Greatest Blues Singer in The World Will Never Stop Singing.
Louise Bernikow is the author of nine books, including “The American Women’s Almanac.” She takes her women’s history slide show to communities and campuses all over the country.
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